Oscar: Most Important Prize in the Film World–Why?

For awards to bear motivational significance, they have to fulfill at least three functions: They have to be visible and known to every artist, they have to carry a high degree of prestige, and they have to be within reach.

The Oscar Awards meet all of these conditions: They are visible, they are prestigious, and they are within reach.  Almost every year, a performer comes out of nowhere to claim one of the four acting Oscars.

The importance of the Oscars goes beyond the American film world.  The Oscars are now universally embraced as symbols of achievement in global entertainment.  A combination of reasons account for that.

Longevity: 89 Years of Running Strong

First and foremost, the longevity of the award. Conferred for the first time in 1929, the Oscar is the oldest film prize in history.

A tradition of 88 years has made the Oscar a respectable symbol with historical heritage. The other entertainment awards are children and grandchildren of the Oscar.

The Antoinette (Tonys) Perry Awards, given by the League of New York Theaters and Producers and the American Theater Wing, were first presented in April 1947.  The Emmys, awarded by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, were presented for the first time in January 1949.  The Grammys, the youngest showbiz awards, were first bestowed by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in May 1959.


Aside from longevity, the various awards differ in scope.  The Tony is essentially a local award, given for achievements in the Broadway theater.  Most people can’t relate to the Tonys because they are confined to shows produced in New York.  A growing criticism of the Tonys is that it excludes the Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theater, where the more innovative work is done. Movies, by contrast, have the potential of reaching everyone.  Even people who don’t live in the United States and don’t speak English can relate to the Oscar show and the Oscar-winning movies.


The Oscar’s prestige stems from the Academy’s status within the industry.  The Academy has always been elitist, with membership that constitutes a very small percentage of the film industry.  Yet despite elitism, the Academy’s procedures are more democratic than those prevailing in other associations.  The Academy, with its various branches, gives equal representation to all artists, regardless of specialty (writers, directors, players).  Based on peer evaluation, the nomination process is democratic: The Acting branch selects nominees for acting awards, the Directors branch for directing awards, etc.  However, each Academy member proposes nominees for the Best Picture, and the entire membership votes for the winners in all the categories.

In contrast, the selection of nominees for the Tony Awards is done by a committee.  Final ballots are sent out to about seven hundred eligible Tony voters, members of the governing boards of the Actors Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the board of directors of the American Theater Wing, members of the League of the New York Theaters and Producers, and those on the first and second night press lists.  Unlike the Oscar, which was always based on nominations, until 1956, there were no nominations for the Tonys.

Peer Recognition

The Oscar is awarded by peers, not by the public. Film artists, like other professionals, attribute the utmost importance to recognition from their peers because they consider them the only experts with the necessary knowledge to make a competent evaluation of their work.  For most filmmakers, the significant reference group, which sets standards to be emulated and also serves as a frame for judging one’s performance, consists of fellow‑workers. Film artists compare the rewards of their work (money, power, prestige) with those gained by their peers.

Scarce Number of Oscars

The scarce number of awards also contributes to the Oscar’s prestige.  In the entire Academy history, only about 700 players have been nominated and only about 250 have won an acting Oscar.  Every year, only 20 players are nominated in four categories, and only four win: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.  These twenty performances are selected out of thousands of eligible performances.

Similarly, the five films competing for Best Picture are chosen from a large pool of over two hundred and fifty films eligible to compete for Oscars.  Production in Hollywood has declined, though: In the past, the number of eligible films was twice as large because of large film output.  In the 1940s, over four hundred films were released on an average year, and in the 1960s over three hundred.

Competition: Healthy or Ruthless

The Oscar is much more competitive than most awards.  In some years, the Broadway theater is in such dismal state that the Tony Committee has problems filling the categories with competent performers, particularly in the musical fields.  But even in better times, no more than forty new plays and ten musicals open in a given season, in comparison to the hundreds of movies and performances eligible for Oscars in a calendar year.

Superlative performances by foreign players may be unfairly ignored, but the Academy refuses to create an additional category for excellence in a foreign-language film.  The suggestion to divide the categories by genre, say, best achievement in drama and comedy, has also been turned down.  The Tonys have separate sets of categories for dramatic plays and musicals.  Those in favor of one prize, regardless of genre or artists’ nationality, claim that increasing the number of awards decrease their prestige; too many categories belittle the award.  The Grammys, for example, are awarded in over seventy categories, and singers can be nominated in three or four categories for the same song.

No National or Geographical Borders?

The Oscar is awarded to film artists of all nationalities: One fourth of the nominees have been foreign artists.  This international dimension extends the visibility of the Oscar and contributes to its prestige.  And the Oscar’s prestige in turn makes for intense international competition.  The scarcity of awards and the intense competition among filmmakers of all nationalities, have made the Oscar all the more desirable.  Whereas other national industries distinguish between local and foreign achievements, the only Oscar category specifically designed to honor foreign achievements is the Best Foreign‑Language Picture.

Immense Impact

The immense effects, both symbolic and pragmatic, on the winning films and winning artists, is another unique feature of the Oscars.  Unlike the prestigious Nobel Prize, there is no financial honorarium, though the Oscar’s economic worth is extraordinary: the winners’ salaries skyrocket overnight! Winning an Oscar means hard cash at the box office: The Best Picture Award can add up to twenty to thirty million dollars in tickets sales. Winning the lead acting award can add four to six million dollars to a film’s profitability. Hilary Swank’s Best Actress nomination for Boys Don’t Cry almost doubled the film’s grosses, and Halle Berry’s Oscar did the same for Monster’s Ball.

American Vs. Global Impact

The Oscars are visible and influential in both the domestic and global markets.  Now-a-days, foreign box‑office receipts amount to more than half of movies’ overall grosses.  Along with prestige and money, the Oscar winners also gain negotiating power for better roles with better directors, and they also enjoy increased popularity outside the film industry and outside the United States.

No other entertainment award has such comparable effects. The Emmys are the least influential for the very reason that reruns of Emmy‑winning programs, unlike re-releases of Oscar‑winning films, cannot add more money. As for the Tonys, many of the winning productions are no longer running by the time of the ceremonies. However, winning a Tony for Best Play or Best Musical is more important for commercial appeal than winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama or the New York Drama Critics Award. In 1978, The Wiz, the all‑black musical which opened to lukewarm reception, became a long‑running show after winning the Best Musical Tony.  Plays that received favorable reviews, such as The Elephant Man and Children of a Lesser God, became more successful at the box office after winning Best Play in their respective years.

The Grammys do have an impact on record sales.  Quincy Jones’s 1982 album “The Dude” hit the top ten after winning five Grammys.  The 1981 Grammy‑winning album of songwriter‑singer Christopher Cross leaped back up the charts and eventually sold more than four million copies, compared to the two million sale prior to winning. Still, these figures do not begin to compare to the financial bonanza of Oscar‑winning films.

Most Popular Award

The four showbiz awards more or less divide the calendar year, with one big event every season: The Oscar show takes place in the late winter/early spring (it used to be late March, now it’s late February), the Tonys in the early summer (first week of June), the Emmys in the fall (mid-September), and the Grammys in the winter (early February).  However, the Oscar telecast is the most popular event in terms of ratings and viewership.

The Oscar’s preeminence in the entertainment world is enhanced through extensive coverage in all the media: print and radio in the first two decades, and television in the last fifty years. This media blitz is not confined to the United States: the Oscar show is a popular TV program, watched live or on tape by over one billion people in over 200 countries.

Every profession is stratified, though some are more sharply than others.  In acting, the inequality in rewards (money, prestige, popularity, power) between the elite and the rank‑and‑file is particularly sharp. There are three relevant audiences and three corresponding evaluations in the film world: evaluation by peers, evaluation by critics, and evaluation by the public.  The first evaluation is internal to the film world, whereas the other two are external or outside the industry.  However, all three evaluations are important because they operate at the same time, and each exerts some impact on the film world.

Most film artists, particularly actors, aim at achieving two distinct goals in their careers: professional attainment as defined by peers and critics, and a broader commercial popularity, as determined by the general public. Actors are aware of the potential conflicts in fulfilling these goals. They know that to be respected by peers and critics is one thing; to be popular, quite another.  In film, more than in other arts, outsiders, namely moviegoers, exercise power over artists’ careers.  By choosing to see a particular film or a particular actor, the public determines not only their present status, but also their chances to work in the future.

What makes the Oscar such an influential award is its combination of all three evaluations.  Through the Oscar, the Academy voters have functioned in various capacities, as peers and colleague, as critics and judges, and as taste makers and trend setters. No other award so well combines the usually disparate critical and popular judgments.

The Oscar is the only award to exert a direct, pervasive influence on every element of the film world: the studios and its executives, the movies, their filmmakers, and their audiences.